As September rolls in, it’s time for Magfest, the pinnacle of excellence in terms of magazine conferences. This year sees attendees learn how to fight for their audience in all senses of the word.
After a warm welcome from Neil Braidwood, during which we were asked to consider what it was that each of us love about magazines, Nikki Simpson took to the stage to thank her team for their hard work, clearly buzzing with excitement for the day ahead.
We were then introduced to Helenor Gilmour, our host for the event, before being handed over to the incredible Vanessa Kingori, editor of GQ. Vanessa explored changes in the industry, highlighting that while adapting is often key, knowing when to hold true is equally important. Change is not something to be feared, but rather something which can drive competition, which in turn can drive improvement. Throughout her talk, Kingori stipulated that people need advice from sources they trust, and highlighted that the magazine industry can act as curators in order to provide such sources. She also brought the concept of tangibility in relation to print products to our attention, which became a recurring topic for a number of speakers. A fascinating introduction to the day.
Sam Bradley, co-founder of Counterpoint Magazine, kicked off the New Scottish Magazines thread for the day with his quarterly publication featuring original writing, photography and illustration. He guided us through their entry to the fiercely competitive market, with amusing anecdotes about their adventures, and misadventures, in Risograph printing, where they use errors to their advantage to give their work character. Alexander McLeod then introduced The Grapevine, which aims to bring attention to the “people on your doorsteps who are doing great things.” The Grapevine, founded in 2015, has quickly established itself as a reputable publication, allowing McLeod to move from giving away copies free of charge, to charging for his magazine, showing how companies can shift as they grow.
Next up came David Dinsmore of News UK, with valuable insight into how the publishing landscape, and consumers’ thirst for news and content are changing. As magazines are generally created with the goal of making a profit, his discussion of subscriptions, paywalls and monetising superfans was particularly insightful, showing the possibilities of thriving in an age where income is increasingly harder to come by.
After a coffee break, Ernst-Jan Pfauth introduced us to De Correspondent, wowing the audience with his record-breaking crowdfunding efforts, and proving that business goals and journalistic goals can work in harmony. With a focus on honesty and collaboration with readers, De Correspondent provides journalism as Pfauth believes it should be, enabling journalists to act as conversation leaders, with readers contributing information regarding subjects in which they have expertise. It’s collaborative – there are no gatekeepers, and in removing such barricades, they’ve shown the potential for others to follow.
Disruptive Insight’s Kirstie Macdonald, Censhare’s Phil Arnold and Delayed Gratifiation’s Rob Orchard then joined Pfauth on the stage for a panel discussion. The discussion centred on market disruption, with Orchard explaining how their ‘slow journalism’ approach may not be considered conventionally disruptive, but offers something that consumers want. The panel members also discussed the value of live events and fostering a sense of trust and community among readers, vital in today’s climate.
After the panel session, delegates were given the opportunity to choose from several break-out sessions. Angela Haggerty bravely took on the main hall in a last minute programme change, where she explained the goals of Common Space, and its social network component, Common Social, highlighting the organisation’s aim of providing an alternative news provider to meet savvy readers’ requirements. While Common Space is not for profit, Haggerty argued that some of the aspects which set her organisation apart from other news providers, such as their purpose-built social media platform, may have monetisation potential in the hands of others. The day is brimming with inspiration for others to learn from.
From New Media to local media, we heard from Jeff Henry of Archant next. He discussed content, monetisation and distribution, guiding us through Archant’s four content pillars. He revealed that all employees get a ‘brand playbook’, ensuring that consistent standards are met throughout the Life magazine portfolio. Henry highlighted the importance of entrepreneurial thinking in today’s fast moving market, sharing anecdotal evidence revolving around The New European pop-up newspaper, which was brought from concept to product in an incredible 9 days.
Upon reaching the stage, Hannah Taylor immediately admitted to being nervous, before introducing She is Fierce, a new alternative magazine for teenage girls. She needn’t have been worried as her talk, and the values her magazine represent, were exceptionally well received – in fact, she absolutely stole the day. This crowdfunded publication is for girls, by girls, and aims to ensure that they don’t lose their confidence or their creativity as they enter their teens. Nutmeg targets another niche entirely – it offers a platform for the Scottish contingent of the football scene, with a focus on putting new writers in the spotlight. Ally Palmer explained how he has moved from the early stages of simply having an idea, through to producing a printed magazine which both feels and smells wonderful. It’s finding an engaged audience, identifying a gap, and filling it with a brilliant product.
Empire Magazine is a publication that knows all about staying relevant, and Terri White gave us her top tips on the topic. She discussed the importance of not only knowing what to say, but when to say it, emphasising that when a magazine starts a conversation, they own that conversation. The Editor-in-Chief drew attention to the value of being able to adapt to change in order to remain relevant. In Empire’s case this has often meant hosting live events, and connecting with consumers in real life.
The next panel session saw White joined on the stage by Peter Houston, Sha Nazir and Andrew Ormston. The conversation initially focused on the early days of a publication, with panellists debating whether issue 1 or issue 6 involved greater challenges. The general consensus was that while issue 1 involves a steep learning curve, the publishers have a huge number of ideas, and plenty of enthusiasm, while readers are willing to make allowances at such an early stage in the game. The discussion the turned to focus on how to maintain creativity in a world driven by statistics and ‘management.’
The second round of breakout sessions offered another range of exciting options. Peter Houston guided those of us in the Islay room through the creation of reader personas. Audience members were encouraged to share the challenges they face in identifying their readership, with participation from representatives of new and established publications alike. Houston reiterated the need to establish what you are trying to achieve throughout the session, and reminded us that we don’t want to be “nothing to nobody,” but we can’t be everything to everyone either.
We returned to the main hall for a talk on design from Astrid Stavro, who kicked things off by telling us about her background. Her slideshow demonstrated the breadth and quality of her work, both prior to and including her work with Elephant magazine. Stavro honed in on the value of tactility in magazine publishing – when we buy magazines we want something that is centred around good content, but also looks and feels great.
In the final round of speakers from the New Scottish Magazines category, Heather McDaid of 404 Ink gave us an inside look into the workings of her brand literary new magazine, and Alberto Negro told us about his design-led magazine, 5 Style. Though 404 Ink may not yet have a magazine to show for their hard work, the team have plenty of ideas and enthusiasm, as well as both literary and monetary contributions from supporters. McDaid explained how they have used the Patreon platform in order to crowdfund their initial idea, and excitedly told us to expect publication in November. 5 Style, whose roots are in minimalism, covers fashion, travel and design, and has found great success in a social media-led marketing strategy. These six speakers from new magazines across the day showed how exciting and diverse the upcoming talent of the industry is. It’ll be a fun few years to see where they go from here.
Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, was the final speaker of the day – appropriate to end an inspiring day with a talk from a man who is so undeniably inspirational. He told us about The Big Issue’s early days and need to fight for a cause, to change the perception of poverty with what they do, mixing anecdotes specific to his publication with general advice for the magazine industry. He described magazines as guides to action, harking back to Kingori’s point about how magazines, if trusted by their readers, are excellent curators, and left those in attendance with a fire under them – one that magazines have the power to change.
Magfest was an excellently executed day, with wonderful speakers, and an overwhelmingly positive atmosphere. The closing remarks highlighted the importance of strong branding and passion for the industry as a whole, as well as individual magazines. Neil Braidwood pointed out that the industry is in safe hands, and having seen the speakers from the New Scottish Magazines category, there’s little doubt that he’s right in saying so.